Friday, April 6, 2012

The Problem of Perfection in Instructional Design

Many instructional designers want to create the most effective, engaging product possible. I know I do, but deep down somewhere in my psyche, I believe that I subconsciously want to create a "perfect" unit of instruction, something that will help each and every student learn, something that manages cognitive load effectively, and help students acquire knowledge and skills that are fully transferred to real-world situations. Unfortunately, I have seen some instructional designers become obsessive about the quality of their work, to the point of losing sleep and generally becoming unhappy and unpleasant people.

I have realized over several years of teaching, training and designing instruction that instructional perfection is not possible. I may be burned at the scholarly stake for saying this, but here are a few considerations:
  1. We design under constraints. We all have limitations of time, resources, money, expertise, tools, etc. Without any one of these, we will likely never have all we need to obtain instructional perfection.
  2. All learners are different. Even if we design and develop a fabulous piece of instruction, our learners all have different backgrounds, different experiences, and different skill-levels. This means that what works "perfectly" for one learner likely won't for another.
  3. Perfection is a mirage. The idea of perfection is not necessarily a reality- even when we meet 100% of the criteria for an instructional product, there is still always more that could be done. Perfection is, from a design perspective, literally unattainable.
Now, having made this (perhaps heretical) assertion, I believe that as designers, we should strive for excellence in our work, but must learn to be satisfied with what is possible given our constraints. The classic Whinston Churchill quote rings true: "Do what you can with what you have where you are."

In striving for excellence, it should be noted great deal of joy can be derived from continually refining and improving a piece of instruction. As we develop our curriculum in the IDPT Master's Program at Franklin University, we formatively evaluate each course and determine how we can refine and improve them. This means restructuring sequence and assignments, eliminating or clarifying confusing materials, providing worked examples, supportive multimedia, templates, and tips to guide students toward learning success.

Working to improve a course should be seen as a pleasure, done for the love of instruction and not as the result of some compulsion to work for instructional perfection. Instructional design is a creative endeavor- it should be seen as the creative application of research-based principles toward the goal of helping learners learn.

Let us move in our design toward excellence, avoid the mirage of instructional perfection, and find satisfaction in the principles and practices of instructional design.
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